​As Seen from the Sidecar

34,000 miles, 445 days, 35 countries, 5 continents - Matt Bishop tells his story of traversing the world by scooter and sidecar to raise funds and awareness of modern slavery.

In the summer of 2015 I was sat in my dingy north London flat, moaning about the world with my childhood pal Reece Gilkes. We weren’t the kind of guys that would usually discuss the news. You would be more likely to find us playing Manchester Utd vs Arsenal for the 17th time in a row on Fifa. But this was different, we had both noted that there was an uncomfortable level of hate in the air. What we were seeing was the coverage of the European migrant crisis. People were being dehumanised left right and centre and a lot of people became scared of immigration. In the UK, border security seemed to become the number one topic of conversation.

We saw a completely different story. We saw normal, vulnerable people, just searching for a better life. So, we decided we would tell stories of normal life around the world, as a gentle reminder that the world is made up of good people – no matter where you come from or where you’re heading to.

Of course, neither of us had ever told a story before and despite being travel agents, we had no idea how we would get around the world. We saw this as a fairly big barrier to telling stories from around the world, but we decided to put our thinking caps on and give it a go anyway. The next day, much to our landlord’s disapproval, we turned the living room of our flat in to a giant whiteboard. We started to scribble down ideas and hash out how we could actually do this. What we came out with was as bizarre as it was genius…

We would be the first people to ever circumnavigate the globe on a scooter with a sidecar.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – bizarre? Yes. Genius? No. Maybe you’re right but we knew if we did the travelling in a stupid enough vehicle, then people would stop and listen to our stories of the people we met on the way. And, better still, the huge challenge that would come with going around the world on such a ridiculous vehicle would give us an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for an issue affecting the people caught up in the migrant crisis. We had heard stories of human traffickers preying on the vulnerable migrant and refugee population in Europe so we decided to raise funds and awareness for organisations fighting modern slavery and human trafficking – Unseen among them. After we looked into the issue a bit more, we found out that there were estimated to be over 40 million people living in slavery around the world and that they were in every country on earth. This completely blew our minds and we knew we had to get this scooter and sidecar on the road.

We wanted to get an idea of exactly what it means to be in modern slavery in the UK so we reached out to Unseen UK to see if they could introduce us to somebody who had survived it. Their response: “We’ve asked, and Mo would love to cook for you guys.” Never known to turn down a meal we jumped at the chance and met Mo in a community kitchen, where he served up an amazing curry and told us his story of fleeing persecution as a Burmese refugee in in Bangladesh, trafficking and exploitation in the UK, and then being supported by Unseen’s Men’s Safehouse. Unseen became one of the first organisations we decided to fundraise for.

Cut to October 21st 2017 and we are gearing up in the car park of London’s Ace Café getting ready to circumnavigate the globe on a scooter and sidecar. With us are 65 other people getting ready to ride or drive in convoy with us as far as Paris. We used our departure to join Unseen’s ‘Lets Nail It’ campaign that raised awareness of modern slavery in nail bars. So, when I say gearing up, I actually mean painting our nails fluorescent yellow and laughing at all of the motorbike guys that had come to support us reluctantly doing the same.

Our supporters left us in Paris and we spent the next 455 days circumnavigating the globe. We headed south to Cape Town first, before scooting through the Americas, and then finally, riding home through a Siberian winter from far-east Russia.We racked up a whopping 34,000 miles, through 35 countries, across 5 continents. We saw some of the world’s most magnificent views but were also faced with some of the world’s toughest environments. From the sands of the Sahara to the snows of Siberia, we faced a temperature range of 50°C to -40°C. It was hardest thing either of us have ever done but we were dragged along by the people we met on the way.

We didn’t meet a single bad person on our trip - not one. At times, people got a bit over excited to see us but never did we feel anything other than welcome in the countries we visited. We relied on that to make the trip happen and we found ourselves spending most nights crashing in a stranger’s house or asking them to help us fix the bike. As we travelled, we didn’t forget our role of raising awareness and money for organisations fighting modern slavery and we visited organisations doing exactly that in the countries we passed through.

We met with 10 organisations en route. Speaking with all of these organisations, in these different countries, we heard how modern slavery and human trafficking exists in different forms all around the world. At the same time, we heard how traffickers are using the same tactics to trap people. It’s always the promise of something better. It’s the Tanzanian kid that wants to be pro footballer, sent to South Africa on the promise of trials, who finds himself in forced labour instead. It’s the Zimbabwean mother who goes to Athens on the promise of an opportunity to study textiles who finds herself trapped in domestic servitude. It’s the model from Bangladesh who goes to the UK for the promise of a better life that finds himself trapped, working in a London kitchen with no pay and no escape. We met and heard stories about all of these people and many more.

This stuff is happening everywhere. No country is without modern slavery and no person is safe from one day falling in to it. It’s an issue that most of us are only just waking up to but one that the organisations we met have been fighting for years. With every visit, we left inspired by the resourceful, tenacious people who are doing all they can to prevent people from falling in to slavery, rescue those who are stuck in it and restore the lives of those who have survived. We’ll be spending the next year or so fundraising for the organisations we met and taking our scooter and sidecar to events, school, colleges and anywhere else that will have us, to talk about what we learnt.

What’s next? Well, it certainly won’t be back to games of Fifa – we’ll be carrying on doing stupid stuff to support the organisations fighting this issue – join us if you like and find out how you can help by getting in touch at www.asseenfromthesidecar.org

by Matt Bishop